Chengdu blues: The joy of spit

February 9, 2019 § 9 Comments

I was sitting at dinner last night with my friends from Sacramento bemoaning the fact that I still had pages and pages in my notebook about my trip to China.

“Why don’t you write it up?” Drew said. “We really enjoy the non-racing blog posts, especially the ones about China.”

“It takes too long to transcribe the notes.”

Darrel looked at me as if he were speaking to an extremely feeble-minded person. “Why don’t you use talk to text?”

“I travel without my phone,” I explained imperiously.

Darrel paused, trying to think of a way to politely call me a dumbfuck. “You know Seth, once you get back home you can use your phone to transcribe those notes that you wrote in China. I’m pretty sure your phone won’t care.”

So the next morning, with a little experimentation, it turns out that Darrel was right. The phone didn’t care.

Snipping the cord

And so I will pick up where I left off, which is the point at which my camera died, severing my last electronic link to the digital age. I quickly realized that as far as as cameras are concerned they are just one more piece of junk to lug around, things you use to badly chronicle that which 1 billion iPhotos have already uploaded to the Internet.

No camera also meant no eye candy for the blog, making the pages look long, hard, daunting, and filled with nails, which is exactly how I like them. Candy is for kids.

As I got ready for the day I realized that I had fully acclimated to the hotel service. They didn’t replace the mini shampoo and conditioner bottles in the shower, they actually topped them off by hand. I suppose that over the course of several hundred changes, they saved a few dollars. And dollars add up.

Other little details were that Hotel H Riverside isn’t really by the river, the phones in the room don’t work, there is no clock in the room, they forget wake up calls, they forget to refill the tea and wash the chipped cups, but how can you really get upset when the shower is the very best you have ever had anywhere?

And how can you really get upset when the staff are friendly and helpful, the breakfast buffet heavenly, the pillows lush and plump, the bed soft, the comforter cozy and thick, the towels luxurious, and the noodle shop next-door… damn good?

As I sat in the lobby waiting for the panda tour that was never going to materialize, I went back to my last trip to China and checked my notes regarding untethering. Here’s what I said then and it’s all true.

  1. We do better with less information.
  2. We have limited processing speed.
  3. We don’t process in real time. Our brains require after-the-fact cogitation that takes time and requires empty mental space.
  4. We are not digital or sequential thinkers. Our brains freely associate at random, and don’t function well when they are forced into endless sequential tasks.
  5. We require but dislike human friction that comes from personal interaction. Untethering forces us to do what we would rather avoid but what we must do.

Morning flail

Day eight was a total a.m. flail. The giant panda tour operator was a no-show. The hotel staff called at my insistence when it became clear that the tour bus wasn’t coming, as the hotel was the one that had made the alleged reservation, even though they denied knowing anything about it despite telling me to be ready to go out the door at 7 o’clock.

The new clerk typed her explanation of the problem into her phone translator, which is still working on a few bugs as it advised “no reservation request your menstrual cycle.”

I was so pissed I refused to give them my menstrual cycle and instead hit Plan B, whose main deficiency was that there was no Plan B. I recalled all the tour hawkers near the station the year before in Kunming, and took the subway to the north station, which turned out to be the mother lode for cheap watches after I’d splurged the rather astounding sum of $75 on a Swatch.

Tour hawkers in Chengdu were nonexistent and I stopped into a couple of travel agencies requesting a personal guide for Chengdu but I might as well have been requesting a portable atom smasher or a satire about the chairman.

One lady directed me to the Chengdu Grand Hotel but they told me they had never heard of such a thing as a personal tour guide, but if I wanted a great panda tour I should call the panda tour operator. I glanced at the brochure and it was the same folks who had done such a stellar job of not picking me up earlier that morning.

However, the confusion it caused requesting a personal guide encouraged me so much that I decided to stop into every hotel I could find and ask the same question. It wouldn’t get me a guide, of that I was confident, but it would pass the time and let me practice my Chinese as I made my way back to the tea shop at People’s Park.

Cold and rainy Monday mornings in winter are pretty awesome. They have a not too busy, kind of good feeling because you realize it’s not only you, but everyone is flat fucking cold, they just deal with it, which is a pretty awesome outlook on the minor or even a major discomforts of life.

The amazing manly joy of spitting

Despite the Party’s dedicated spit eradication program, hundreds of millions of Chinese men have not yet successfully completed the SEP course. The pleasure with which meant spit can scarcely be imagined, a pleasure limited only by the infinite variety of hawking and expectoration techniques. There is the casual spirit, a simple emptying of the mouth, barely conscious and never premeditated.

There is the deep-throated, rumbling rev that collects errant fluid and mixed solids before firing them out, thick projectiles with fierce velocity to spatter hard against the pavement. Each sticky glob, upon observation, is as unique as a Rorschach test, distinct in color, consistency, and angle as the most considered painting.

Spitting is surely linked to horrible air quality, lingering catarrhs and even more sinister diseases of the throat and lungs, but that only explains part of it. The rest? Male privilege, of course. Spitting is the mark of the man, denied it to women with the same finality of scratching one’s crotch in public.

I made it to the park fine and had a cup of tea. It wasn’t as exciting as a great panda tour but it was certainly cheaper.

Maybe I’d have better luck next day.

I thought about that.

Maybe I wouldn’t.



Getting there is half the fun

February 8, 2019 § 10 Comments


I drove to Sacramento to meet up with friends for an annual ride. When we arrived I realized that I had lost the charger for my laptop, so we detoured to the Apple store.

There are no young customers at the Apple store. They buy their stuff online and fix their stuff online. The Apple store does have young people in it, though., the sales staff. They are there to guide the stupid old people through the circuitous maze leading to their credit card.

“I need an adapter charger thingy,” I said.

The chic Mac jock in hipster shoes and a ragged beard smiled. “Sure! Which laptop do you have?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

This fazed him exactly zero, and how could it? He hears it every day, a thousand times. “Does it have a magnetic connector?” he asked.

“I don’t know. What’s that?”

He knew that my very ignorance meant I didn’t have one. “So the power cord plugs into a little socket?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And when did you buy the laptop?”

“About a year ago.”

“Fifteen or thirteen-inch screen?”

“I don’t know.”

“Kind of big or kind of little?”

“Kind of big.”

“Here’s what you need,” he smiled, guiding me to the adapter charger thingy.

I stared at the $79 price tag and pretended that I hadn’t just been to China, the country of origin, where they were selling these in the street for $5.

“You’ll also need the cord,” he smiled, pointing me to a little box with a wire cord in it. $15. They’d had those on the street in Chengdu, too. One buck. For three.

Then Yasuko chimed in. “I need a new phone charging cord.”

“Okay,” the hip guy smiled again, pulling down another $10 cord.

I handed him my credit card meekly. He had gotten to the end of the maze so fast, almost as if he’d done it a million times before. The total was over $120, with tax.

Behind me some other stupid old people were speaking baby English to a different staffer, who had asked “What seems to be the problem?”

“Our Internet doesn’t work,” the stupid old man said.

“Let’s have a look,” he said, whisking them away to the Genius Bar, which is what they call the wallet vacuuming station. “And see if we can’t get this fixed.”

I half expected the stupid old people to pull the Internet out of their pocket to show the Mac jock, but they didn’t need to. He was already 99% of the way to the end of the maze.



Good days on a bad ride

February 7, 2019 § 6 Comments

Our trusty correspondent from the planet Mxyzptlk recently drafted this most excellent piece of training advice and disseminated it to members of the Flog spam list newsletter. It was so good I thought I’d re-post it here; it’s applicable to every miserably hard regular group ride or training race that you do.

Based on 3+ years’ experience doing the local Flog ride, it’s excellent advice.

To Flog, or not to Flog? Just a few weeks into the 2019  Flog season, and, already, this is the question.

It is 5:00 AM.



Possibly raining.

You are miles from the start at Malaga Cove.

It will be a long, miserable ride there.

You will arrive to enjoy six fun-filled laps, during which you will be mercilessly flogged, to no apparent purpose.

Pulling a shift on a trireme as a galley slave is starting to sound good right about now. And then, there is your pillow, gently whispering “Don’t do it! Don’t do it!,” and maybe even playing this song in your ear.

I have never claimed to like the Flog. In fact, I would tell anybody who asked that it was my least favorite ride, ever. That I dreaded it. Got pre-Flog anxiety every Wednesday, and was never sure I wouldn’t back out of until I actually arrived at the fountain on Thursday morning at 6:35 AM, pointy-sharp.

For some reason, it isn’t as fun as some other rides. No, that isn’t right. It isn’t fun at all. NPR starts at the same time Thursdays, but because you are going fast, it’s a blast. Oh, and you can hide in the group, and if you get shelled you just catch your breath, cut the course, and hop in with the group when it comes swarming by on the other side of the Parkway. They’re called “hop-in wankers” for a reason.

On those other rides, few know if you are hanging on for dear life. There is anonymity in the back third. And getting sucked along by a 60-strong peloton, if you have the basic fitness you don’t haveto go hard if you decide you don’t want to.

No such luck at the Flog. As Yoda said, “There is no hide.” Your struggles and place in the hierarchy are known, and rarely improve. Where is the reward for all this humiliation, droppage, and pain?

No one loves the Flog

A few people over the course of the  three years I have been doing the Flog have claimed to love the ride. These proclamations amount to a kiss of death. When anyone starts claiming to love the Flog, and begins gushing testimony to the ride’s training effect, it is a guarantee that that person will quit the ride within weeks. No one who is doing this ride and intends to continue doing it can develop feelings of love for it. If you do, you will for sure not be around in a month or two.

But you can learn to embrace it, with all its unlovability, using some Jedi mind tricks. Let me share them with you, though, like the Flog itself, the explanation is long, painful, and hard to endure.

When I first started flogging in 2016 I was new to cycling, had only very recently graduated from tennis shoes to cleats, and had never even heard of “group rides.” To say that I had a hard time on the Flog would be an understatement. I finished each lap as part of the group Michelle Landes called “ The Caboose,” meaning the very last couple of riders to finish the lap. Every lap was an immersion into intense self-flagellation, my single hope being simply not be the last rider in the caboose to arrive at the regroup.

Even pedaling hard as I could, tasting blood in my throat, I still came in last by a fair margin at least half the time.

Doing worse isn’t progress

I went home all that first year extremely defeated, never feeling like I was getting any better, never looking forward to being part of the Flog and facing my lack of cycling fitness gasping for air in the country club parking lot.

I did 2017 much the same way, never feeling like I was making any progress, with little sense of accomplishment week in and week out. I continued to go, however, because taking time away from the Flog never translates into less defeat; you only get further behind with each week that you miss. But when 2018 rolled around and I was facing another year of the Flog, and many mornings of cold dread, I decided to change my relationship with this ride.

I looked at my strengths and weaknesses and decided to focus on only one of them for the whole year. My nemesis on this particular ride had always been the first bump on PV Drive North. I could never even come close to staying with the leaders on that bump and always crested the top with an insurmountable distance between myself and all the other riders.

However, I was always able to make up some ground on the next section, the climb to the golf course. In 2018, I focused only on trying to stay with the lead group up that first hill, and that was it. This meant that I was going to have to abandon any hope of making up ground on the second section, as well as any attachment to where I finished after each interval. I had to give up the racing aspect of the ride, because staying with the lead group on that first hill was going to leave me unable to do anything but blow up once I reached the top.

Instead, I gained small victories each week by staying with the group further and further up the hill, until finally, I was able to stay with them the whole length of the climb just one time.

Let me tell you how that felt, after three years of getting shelled at the start of each lap, then finally hanging: It was amazing.

Eventually, I was able to do it more than once per flogging, as the ride consists of six laps, and then three times, until by the end of the year I was consistently staying with the main group up the climb on almost every lap, and sometimes even having a little energy to push the pace again somewhere near the end of the lap.

Instead of going home from every ride feeling defeated and like I was not making any progress, I went home feeling good about my efforts and improvements, even though staying with the group on that initial climb cost me so much energy that I still sometimes  finished the lap in last place.

Compartmentalizing your gains

By breaking down my goals into small victories I was able to change my feelings towards the ride. I found a way to make each ride a reward. Being able to approach the ride with personal goals instead of as a race to not be last,freed me from the defeat that plagued my commitment to the ride, and allowed me to look forward to going, regardless of how I did within the scheme of the Flog hierarchy each week.

There are real, neurological underpinnings for leveraging motivation in this way, and they are tied to activating reward centers in the brain. One is referred to as Go/No Go learning, which operates on both the Pavlovian and operant levels,  whereby you choose to do or not do something based on the probability of a positive or negative outcome. There are multiple ways in which this works, but the two most favorable conditions to learning and motivation are “Go” outcomes as opposed to “no go” outcomes. In other words, seeking reward in the framework of “Go to win” or “Go to not lose” (both are coded as a reward by your brain), makes you ride better.

Through activation of  specific parts of the brain, people learn better under conditions of reward, so viewing any action as a potential reward as opposed to punishment or failure will ultimately lead to better learning and higher levels of intrinsic motivation. Can you say dopamine?

There are multiple ways this Jedi mind trick can be done:

Create a reward scenario for yourself when things come out better than expected. Often I am exhausted with sore muscles from demands of my job, which impacts my cycling performance. I used to avoid hard rides when I felt that way, because I didn’t want to face a poor performance. Now, I go out and ride anyway and view the outcome through the lens of riding better than expected under the conditions, so I can go to a ride and feel good about what I accomplished, even if it was not as strong as the week before. Why? Because my frame of reference has converted failure into a reward.

Push your reward further out in time. Make your goals based not on this February or March, but as far out as the last week of the ride in August, as I did when I focused on accomplishing just that one aspect of fitness for the whole year.

Make your reward simply the act of showing up in order to maintain the fitness you have. This is reinforcing the “Go to Not Lose” aspect of learning. People continue to strive when they put themselves in an environment where they perceive their actions as efforts to maximize gains and minimize losses. Feeling as if you have been proactive by minimizing loss  will activate your reward centers and motivate you to continue. You win just for showing up.

Break the ride down into small components that address specific training outcomes, and focus on improving in just those areas. Seeing improvement each week, or even on each lap, will activate reward centers and increase motivation. Here are some sub-Jedi tricks to help accomplish this!

  • Improve your 1 minute effort by going hard on the first hill.
  • Improve your 4 minute effort and VO2 max by going all out on just the section between the bottom of the dip on Paseo Del Campo and the Valmonte stop sign.
  • Improve your final sprint by going all out on the last two Via Campesina  bumps, even if there is no one around you or, if you already do that, try starting your sprint at the Valmonte stop sign and carrying it through the bumps.
  • Try to stay with either the lead group or a rider ahead of you as long as you can before getting shelled.
  • Try to do the whole ride as low cadence big ring training.
  • Choose to focus on one of these aspects each lap, and make the ride a comprehensive training day that addresses all aspects of fitness.

In  Pavlovian and operant systems, reward leads to vigor, whereas punishment leads to inhibition and reinforcement of fear pathways. If you want to stay motivated, especially within the context of  a task that is difficult to follow through on, creating a system of small rewards can keep you moving in the right direction. When I disassociated viewing the Flog through the negative filter of a race leading to inevitable defeat, I began to experience new motivation and drive to get up and out the door at 5:50 AM on Thursdays, without the overshadowing dread of previous years. Best of all, I started to see improvements that I had not seen in the past.

In other words, resist making the ride a simple exercise in racing to the finish lap by lap, week by week, year by year. If that happens, you will end up like many others, touting the value of the Flog to enhance fitness, glorifying its worthiness to you personally, and then fading like a distant memory into the Flog history of ex-riders, afraid to return and face the reality of a truly hard ride.


Floyd’s Pot Shop sponsors dope new team

February 6, 2019 § 2 Comments

After the bongshell announcement that former Tour de France ace and gadfly about town Floyd Landis had formed his own cycling team in cahoots with “Max Kash Aggro” beer peddler Roger G. Worthington, Cycling in the South Bay sat down with these two paragons of cycling wisdom and marketing wizardry to plumb the depths of their new plans to send cycling’s Ancien Regime up in smoke.

CitSB: You first, Floyd. What’s a nice boy like you doing in a shit-show like this?

Landis: It’s time to give back with more than just drugs. After getting that $750k from the Lance lawsuit, I wanted to help revitalize this sport that I love, or at least provide it with an alternative to opiates and manmade painkillers.

MKA: Hey, shut up, Floyd. It’s my turn to talk. Look, Wanky, your blog sucks, okay?

CitSB: We’ll get to you in a moment, little fellow. Floyd, you and Worthington have been friends a long time. How has that worked?

Landis: We go way back. Rog was one of the first people who believed in my innocence.

CitSB: One born every minute, right?

Landis: Pretty much.

MKA: Remember that time after you got banned that I had you announce at the Dana Point GP and you got hammered and sang all those Johnny Cash songs from the booth?

Landis: That was a gas, Rog. Good times! You are the best!

CitSB: Floyd, you’re on record as saying with regard to young people racing that “I would never encourage kids to get into it. It’s a catastrophe. It’s awful.” Has that changed?

Landis: Oh, absolutely. I totally encourage kids to get into bike racing now. It’s amazing. It’s fantastic.

CitSB: What’s changed?

Landis: The unicorns. They are everywhere now, with rainbow farts that smell like licorice and cetewale.

CitSB: Cetewale?

Landis: Middle English for “zedoary.”

CitSB: Zedoary?

Landis: Never mind.

CitSB: Okay. So back in 2017 when asked about the potential for change in cycling you said, “No, there’s no hope. There isn’t any. That’s just a fact. We can sit here and be pie in the sky, but they’re not changing.” And you described the U.S. governing body as “These are the same people, the same officials, the same USA Cycling. It’s all still just infested with disgusting people.” But things are different now?

Landis: Oh, absolutely.

CitSB: How?

Landis: Unicorns are in charge now and they are all eating Floyd’s Pot Shop cannabis products. Look! There goes a unicorn now!

CitSB: Where? Where?

Landis: Oh, dang it. You just missed it.

CitSB: Crap. Anyway, a couple of years ago you said, “In any case, the sport will never be clean and the guys who take the products will always be one step ahead.” Thoughts?

Landis: When I said “always” I didn’t add “and forever.” What I meant was “always” like “I will always love you, honey.” You know, one of those things no one believes. Come on. I was KIDDING. What I should have said is that the sport will never be clean until I and MKA get our own pro team and the riders are drinking Worthy Beer, the finest craft beverage currently produced in America.

MKA: It’s better than that!

Landis: You are the best, Rog. You rock, bro!

CitSB: A quick check of Beer Advocate has Worthy Brewing at 3.66 out of five. Just sayin’.

MKA: Those worthless sacks of shit at Beer Advocate wouldn’t know good beer if you poured it up their butts with a siphon.

CitSB: Sorry?

MKA: It’s all a joke. Those beer rating things are scams. He who pays the most, wins! And I play to win. Our marketing budget for 2019 has quadrupled, with glossy back cover buys for 12 issues. That will increase our taste rating by a full point, you’ll see.

CitSB: MKA, in addition to your extensive background as a leaky prostate masters racer, what are you bringing to the effort?

MKA: I’m not a megalomaniac. I have, however, performed lung surgery, founded a Nobel Prize-winning institute that has cured mesothelioma and bunions, built a 50,000 square foot, zero-carbon footprint home in Bend, taught Chris Botti how to play trumpet, developed the best tasting beer hop on earth, won several football championships for Clear Lake High back in Houston, written a New York Times bestseller about hair regrowth in older men through pilates, recovered over $4,000 billion for deserving asbestos victims without ever setting foot in a courtroom, devised a plan to stabilize and re-freeze the Thwaites Glacier, mastered the comb-and-tissue paper, and personally delivered Christmas presents in a magical sleigh to over a billion people in Africa.

CitSB: So you’re thinking the bike racing venture should be pretty easy?

MKA: Who’s the winningest masters cycling team of all time? Labor Power, brought to you by MKA. Who’s the greatest brewer of all time? Worthy Brewing, brought to you by MKA. And who’s gonna win the Tour next year? Floyd’s Pot Shop, brought to you by MKA. I’m like Ceasar. I come, I see, I conquer. Got it?

CitSB: Yes, sir.


Shut up and give me twenty

February 5, 2019 § 9 Comments

Sciencey people tell us that all we have to do in order to live to be a thousand is to engage in 20 minutes of moderate exercise three times a week. Nonetheless, it is very hard to go for a bike ride when you have less than a 2-3 hour window of ride time.


First of all we’re not really convinced that short rides are worth doing. We even have a phrase, “junk miles,” to describe bike time that isn’t “any good.” This is ridiculous from a health vantage point. Five or ten junk miles are scientifically-esque proven to help you reach 1,000, much more so than a hundred miles of couch intervals watching the teevee.

But the biggest reason not to do short jaunts is that when you are a cyclist, as opposed to a normal person who simply rides a bike, getting ready for the ride takes a lot of time. In order to put on your kit, find the matching arm warmer, air up your tires, make sure you have your computer, clip on your lights, put on your shoes and clatter out the door it takes at least fifteen minutes.

If your water bottle is empty, or you have to set Strava on your phone, or you forgot your driver license, or you need some food, basically, anything, then it takes twenty minutes. If you have to ride in weather, it’s half an hour.

There is something psychological that won’t let you spend thirty minutes getting ready for a twenty-minute ride. It seems completely useless, especially when it takes another fifteen minutes back home to undress and stow things away.

I didn’t have time for a long ride today but I had time for twenty minutes. I kitted up and went out, and then because I was already on my bike, sneaked in another twenty. That gave me forty minutes of exercise. I worked up a sweat, climbed some hills, and although it didn’t feel like a “real ride,” in fact it was.

Couple more rides like that and I will be right up there with Methuselah, or maybe even Tim Gillibrand.



Pillow babies

February 4, 2019 § 7 Comments

Before going for a ride yesterday I was treated to a lively Facebag discussion of cupcakes, riding in the rain, hardmen, and pillow babies. The gist of it was that people aren’t as tough as they used to be, proven by the fact that so few people are willing to race in the rain anymore.

Photos were posted of manly men and womenly women from the historical era of Back in the Day as they rode heroically through massive drops of rain. Grizzled Facebook cycling veterans typed contemptuously about the softness of those who learned to ride in the historical era of These Days, and baby-faced youth defended their online bravery, and much was made or not made of the pillow babies who would rather hammer on #socmed than tough it out in the elements. No one, it should be noted, was actually out riding.

I giggled at the silliness and rolled out, enjoying three hours of somewhat rainy weather while the pillow babies and their detractors enjoyed visions of toughness, all warm and dry beneath the safety of their downy coverlets.

Why aren’t cyclists tough anymore?

This is the refrain, and it’s tiresome. The argument goes like this: Back in the Day, real cyclists and especially real racers suited up and ground out the miles no matter the weather. “The weather doesn’t tell you when to ride, it tells you what to wear,” or “There is no bad riding weather, only bad clothing choices.”

People cite to the changed nature of Europe’s spring classics, where global warming has all but eliminated the frigid, muddy, rain-soaked spring races of yore, and point to the fact that on the rare occasions when it gets downright nasty, serious cyclists throw their bikes on a plane and train in Mallorca. In addition, the UCI’s Extreme Weather Protocol now has rules that allow promoters to cancel or shorten races when terrible weather warrants. The days of Andy Hampsten soldiering to victory over a frozen Gavia, or Bernard Hinault suffering lifelong nerve damage to his hands from frostbite during a snowy eight-hour ride to victory in Liege-Bastogne-Liege … those days are done.

On a local level, promoter Jeff Prinz aroused the scorn of the SoCal hardmen, a contradiction in terms if ever there was one, when he canceled his Sunday parking lot crit due to fear of rain. Canceling a four-corner crit due to rain? WTF? Since when did the pillow baby contagion infect race promoters?

And everyone piled on …

The genesis of the pillow baby

Sadly for admirers of that epic historical era of Back in the Day, pro cyclists didn’t used to ride in horrible weather because they heroically wanted to. They did it because there were no other options other than the indoor trainer or indoor rollers, themselves inventions of the 1950’s. No rider could sit on rollers for 5-7 hours, six days a week, so they rode out of doors, where, in northern Europe at least, it was cold and wet in winter.

They raced on horrible roads not because racing on horrible roads covered with muddy slime was fun, but because for decades that’s how roads in Europe were–a mixture of some asphalt, some cobbles, and in the mountains, dirt paths. People were not “tough” because they had some kind of nutty commitment to suffering. They voluntarily chose to cycle as a job or as an avocation, and hence they had to ride in whatever conditions and on whatever roads were available.

There was no Zwift. There were no spin classes. There was your bike and the out of doors, and you got to take your pick: Ride or not ride.

Of course the same applies to racing. Races were held rain or shine because equipment was cheap and more importantly, riders were cheap. At the beginning of a season in the 1970’s, a mid-level Tour rider’s equipment consisted of one bike and five kits. Both were expected to last the full racing season, and if you fell and got hurt and couldn’t race, there was no end of hungry younger riders waiting to take your slot. Everything was cheap, especially the human labor that powered the bikes.

Today no serious team owner considers risking the health of its marquee rider in a single race. The Sagan or Froome-level racer costs millions to retain and to train. The equipment, support staff, and logistical costs are incredibly expensive. Losing all of that capital, and with it any hope of financial return in a sport noted for its poverty, simply to finish or do well in some middling race in Belgium makes no sense at all. And although riders are as disposable as they ever were, they are more vocal about being fed into the maw of truly deadly racing conditions.

In addition to the increased value of the rider, the sport is highly specialized. There are riders who simply do not ride the classics, period. There are riders who simply do not stage race. And no one races 200 days a year. Riders are more selective, teams are more selective, and it means that fewer and fewer professionals have to ever prepare for the gnarly conditions of a rainy Sunday in Hell.

In short, the whole idea that racers were once heroic and manly is a silly myth. They did what they did because they were forced to. When you have 200 race days on your calendar and are expected to attend them all, you are gonna be riding your bike on some pretty crappy days.

The amateur pillow baby

If Back in the Day the heroes were simply doing as they were told, I can say with certainty that for the profamateur bike racer, there was never a time when hardman training and racing were the norm. A handful of riders might soldier through the winter a la Scott Dickson, who averaged a hundred miles a day for over thirty-five years despite living most of those winters in Iowa, but virtually everyone else followed the time-honored ritual of off season training:

  1. Hang up the cleats in winter.
  2. Get fat.
  3. Start riding again when the weather improved.

Of course there were races held in the rain, usually poorly attended unless they were elite, major races, but for the most part recreational bicyclists have never hopped out of bed at five, put on their rain gear, and danced out into a deluge for four hours.

Why? Because people ride for fun, and being wet and cold for most people isn’t fun. This is what used to be known as “Duh.” Moreover, when you compare the fun of a frozen bike ride with the fun of a warm pillow, 99.999999% of the human race judges it no contest and rolls back over.

The modern era has a new twist that keeps the pillow babies snuggly in their beds: Their bikes are just as expensive as the pros they emulate, and although Sagan might get another $15k bike if he washes out and takes a tumble, the rest of us are forced to choose between replacing the bike and being served with a petition for marital dissolution.

You’re really going to risk all that bike and all that pretty clothing for the glory of posting a #socmed photo of your ride on a wet day? Especially in SoCal, when the winter never lasts more than a week and the “frigid” temps aren’t even low enough to kill subtropical palm trees? Really?

This isn’t a new development, it’s how it has always been and always will be. If anything, having Zwift and spin class has radically expanded the number of people who will at least get some exercise on days when out of doors riding is miserable, dangerous, unendurable, or all three. Sciencey people tell us that if you get 20 minutes of moderate exercise three times a week you will live to be a thousand. So what if you are a pillow baby who spins at the crack of noon? You are still #winning.

So why all the fuss?

A friend asked me last night why I ride in miserable weather.

“Because there is nothing better than being soaked to the skin and frozen to the bone, then coming home to a warm house and a warm meal.”

“Kind of like people who enjoy pain because it feels so good when they stop?”

“No,” I said. “Kind of like having fun.”



A little non-bicycle action

February 3, 2019 § 6 Comments

I’m reading “Capital in the 21st Century” by Thomas Piketty. In many ways it is the first serious, non-polemical update of Karl Marx’s revolutionary work, “Das Kapital,” published in 1867.

If you have ever wondered about inequality, what it is, what it stems from, how it can be measured, and its relationship to capital, this book will blow your mind. It’s written by a brilliant French economist, for people like me who don’t know much about economics or the fundamentals of how wealth is distributed.

I’m less than halfway through the book and it’s already clear: Marx was wrong about some basics, but right about others. Capital, at least as it is regulated–that is, taxed–in the modern world will ultimately devour everyone who depends not on capital to live but on labor. And as Piketty’s research makes clear, it has been this way since at least the 18th Century, if not before.

There are no flaming, revolutionary declamations, only the cool recitation of equations, statistics, analysis, and political facts that show how everyone who works for a wage is being, and will always be, fed to the maw of capital.

Happy reading!